A green New Deal

With climate change accelerating, droughts lengthening, forests, wetlands and species disappearing, today's financial crisis may be both our last and best chance to push for a Global Green New Deal, says Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program.

Changing the channel on the global economy

Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, is calling for a Global Green New Deal to revive world economies and halt climate change.
The global financial crisis has yanked an ominous phrase from the history books into everyday discussion. But along with the hypertension-inducing Great Depression comes another, more hopeful phrase: The New Deal.

U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s is often credited with helping pull that country out of the Great Depression. Although the program included regulatory and social reforms, it is the massive investment in job-creating public works — dams, bridges, schools, highways - that has revived interest in it.

Now, economists advise governments and financial advisors tell their clients that investment in infrastructure will help dispel the Great Depression bogeyman.

Not so fast, says Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program. The New Deal of the 1930s was Old Economy. With climate change accelerating, droughts lengthening, forests, wetlands and species disappearing, today's financial crisis may be both our last and best chance to change that channel, UNEP says.

What the world needs now, says UNEP, is a New Deal for a new economy: A Global Green New Deal.

The following are edited excerpts from a CBC interview with UNEP executive director Achim Steiner, who spoke by phone from Nairobi, Kenya.
The phrase "New Deal" conjures up a grim time. Why did you choose that name?

Steiner: We are facing a financial crisis on a scale that is unprecedented.… If we exhaust ourselves simply solving the financial crisis, we will have exactly the same economic system and exactly the same economic and ecological footprint five years down the line, and that would be a major opportunity missed.…

The opportunity in every crisis is to take a quantum leap forward in terms of innovation, in terms of transformation.… That was really the analogy to Roosevelt's New Deal. What would a Global Green New Deal do?

Steiner: These enormous sums of money that we are directing towards the financial crisis [could be directed to] our climate change challenge, energy security challenge and food security challenge.…

[We] have the imperative to act on carbon emissions. Can we use some, or a significant part, of these resources to also trigger a major energy efficiency program which would provide an immediate economic stimulus to the economy, provide jobs, and also reduce our carbon footprint? Can we use these resources to also trigger, through public policy, through incentives and investment programs, an acceleration of our renewable energy supplies?…

None of what we are suggesting has just been invented today. Many of these approaches have been tried out as innovations over the last decade or so, but this crisis provides us an opportunity to scale them up and to accelerate their implementation. You have said that the old economy, and the old economy jobs, means more boom and bust cycles.

Steiner: Part of our green economy initiative has been to look at jobs. Where are the jobs of the future going to come from? This is particularly relevant for developing countries, where 1.3 billion people still live below the poverty line. If you take the old sectors of industrial growth in the 20th century — the steel industry, the car industry — they provide some four to five million jobs each. This is not going to be the major job-generation machine.

We have to remember also, we will have 2.5 to three billion more people by 2050. We need to start looking for income generation possibilities in the green technology sector, in the recycling sector, in management of natural resources and ecosystems, which provides services, which we have to integrate into our economy.

The IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, [says]  we are faced with the extraordinary challenge of, within the next seven, eight or nine years, of stabilizing CO2 emissions.… We are never going to achieve such a goal if we don't take some transformative steps in our energy system.
It's hard to imagine at a time when some developing nations and even some developed ones are going to the IMF for help that any will have the financial clout to take these steps. It seems to be almost a matter of survival at the moment.

Steiner: Many countries are not only looking at rescuing banks in terms of liquidity and bringing confidence back into the lending market, there are also major economic stimulus packages being developed.

Now, do we just put that money through tax cuts back into the pocket of consumers or do we try to combine at least a part of this money with achieving a benefit for the long-term economic recovery?

A simple example: You can give people money and they will go and spend it. Or you can put it into grants that would encourage house owners to invest in energy-efficiency measures. [You get] immediate job creation, demand in the economy, less energy consumption.…

It's not that difficult, once you begin to connect the dots, to see you can actually come out with a superior package of crisis response, as with Roosevelt's New Deal. That is precisely what he did. He didn't just deal with the Depression as a financial crisis. He essentially re-engineered the American economy, and gave new signals to investors in the market in terms of where development should go. What's the next step for the Green New Deal?

Steiner: On the 15th of November there will be a meeting in Washington, convened by [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush and the European Union and others that are going to talk about rescue packages. If we do not insert these ideas and questions into these discussions now, then we will probably miss a major opportunity. These things are moving very fast. How key is it that this happen? And if it doesn't, what future do you see?

Steiner: I would refer [you to] what economists call the opportunity cost, i.e., what would you forego if you do something else. [British economist and academic] Lord [Nicholas] Stern, in his report [to the U.K. government], outlined the potential consequences in economic terms of not acting on reducing our carbon footprint.… The current financial crisis will seem like, not a minor problem, but certainly a problem on a much smaller scale than what we will face if we do not come to grips with global warming.

And it's therefore Nick Stern's hypothesis that we can actually achieve a stabilization of our global climate scenarios with a relatively minor investment today. And with every year and decade that passes that price will escalate, both in terms of paying for the damage we will face and having to, in a sense, crawl back from a much worse scenario than we are facing right now if we were to act in a significant way.